Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: Rites of Conquest

Each year, thousands of visiting Michigan school children file through the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol building past an imposing statue of Lewis Cass, Michigan’s territorial governor from 1813 to 1831. The guide likely throws out brief factoids on his tenure, leaving the students with some vague impression that this portly, serious-looking guy did something great. At the US Capitol’s website, we’re told that “his tenure was marked by good relations with the numerous Indian tribes under his jurisdiction.” Anyone who’s read Charles Cleland’s beautifully researched Rites of Conquest: The History and Culture of Michigan’s Native Americans would gag at such a statement.

Cass is not the only character in the history of the slow erosion of Indian (I’ll use “Indian” here as Cleland does) livelihoods in the Great Lakes region, but his activities marked a stunning apex of greed which was born with the first European (French, essentially) arrivals in the 1600s. Before that, the material record indicates that Indians occupied the area of what we now call Michigan for 12,000 years (“In contrast to the 350 or so years non-Indian people have lived on the shores of the Great Lakes, such a tenure is immense”). Cleland brings to life the likely realities of the Anishnabeg, the Algonquian-speaking people who fished, hunted and later farmed the region and who, importantly, travelled for food and social reasons along with the seasons (summers fishing at the lake in larger villages, winters hunting the interior). Cleland deftly avoids romanticizing traditional Indian life while at the same time fostering a deep respect for their endurance and connection to the land.

After European arrival, a wave of different tribes washed over the area, fleeing or following various wars. What we now think of as traditionally “Michigan” tribes: the Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi originated in today’s Canada and Wisconsin. Warfare was not unknown prior to the Europeans, but it increased as the French fur trade gained momentum and allies, and Indians sought new, useful products (cloth, metal, guns) from this new French “tribe”. In contrast to the British and eventually the Americans who would follow, the few French traders operated on relatively even ground with their Indian counterparts. Over time, Indians were increasingly conscripted as mercenaries in wars between France and Britain or Britain and America.

But the most heartbreaking chapter in this history has got to be the late-18th and entire 19th century, after the establishment of the US. In conventional history, we think of this era as the beginning of our great independence. For Michigan Indians, it was exactly the opposite as a hungry new country swindled all but the tiniest speck of land from them by both formal and informal means. That a people used to migrating with the seasons fared so poorly in trivial, static “reservations” is not surprising. You know the story, but you’ll weep at the details. The aforementioned Cass played one of the biggest roles in this swindle.

What makes this book so special is its ability to weave history and anthropology together seamlessly. Most Americans have a general sense of atrocities carried out against indigenous people, but Cleland describes the cultural underpinnings of misunderstanding and manipulation that continue to have such an impact on Indians today. Primarily, those are the conflicts between oral and written methods of documenting history, the difficulty of ascribing names/identity to individuals and tribes, and the disconnect between Western economic systems and Indian traditions of gift giving. All of these divisions played out, pretty much solely to Indians’ disadvantage in treaty negotiations and other methods of land acquisition.

As an environmentalist, I’m interested in history that’s tied not to an ethnic group or state, but to the land. For that reason, I think every American should know the local indigenous history of their region – it gives a humbling counter to our sense of ownership and identity as citizens of a place. Cleland’s book is not only an important contribution to Michigan history, but hits on fundamental questions about the founding and future of our country.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Environmental News Roundup: Mexico


“Mexico has faced illegal logging for years, but now security experts say that Mexican cartels appear to be entering into the illicit trade, either by orchestrating the logging or serving as armed muscle and then taking their cut.” - In Mexico, forests fall prey to crime mafias

Deforestation in the wintering grounds of the Monarch butterfly in central Mexico has dropped to just over one acre's worth of trees, compared to the hundreds of acres lost annually in the past, experts said.” - Logging drops further in Mexico butterfly reserve

“Portuguese architecture firm Blaanc Borderless and Mexican studio CaeiroCapurso have recently launched a non profit organization that aims to "help build a more sustainable and humanitarian future by recovering and teaching earth construction techniques," and its first project is the construction of twenty sustainable houses in the indigenous village of San Juan Mixtepec.” - Smart Adobe Houses To Help Women In Difficult Conditions In Mexico

Businesses in the United States have more than doubled their exports of spent lead acid batteries in the last year, because recycling fees in Mexico are cheaper. However, because of a lack of proper environmental regulation and technology, the people who work in the Mexican recycling centers and the surrounding environment are at great risk.” - US Exports of Used Car Batteries to Mexico Reach New and Dangerous Heights

“The sculpture installation—strategically located near the popular resort city of CancĂșn, Mexico—has already been colonized by corals and more than 1000 different types of fish plus lobsters and other creatures. As an added benefit, tourists who opt to go see deCaire Taylor's growing reef take some of the ecological burden off of the older, more delicate reefs nearby.” - Art + Corals + Conservation = Awesome

“Researchers say global warming has already harmed the world's food production and has driven up food prices by as much as 20% over recent decades… Specific countries fared worse than the average, with Russia losing 15% of its potential wheat crop, and Brazil, Mexico and Italy suffering above average losses.” - What's pushing up food prices?

“A drought in Mexico, which supplies close to half of the United States’ imported sugar, is expected to clip output for the 2011-12 sugarcane harvest… A scarcity of sugar could contribute to rising food prices, as the sweetener is commonly found in many of the foods Americans eat.” – Farmpolicy.com

“In 2009, Mexico revised its biosafety legislation, lifting a decade-old ban on genetically-modified corn, sparking an outcry from environmentalists, human rights activists, and small-scale farmers who said the move favored the big agribusiness and put their native varieties that have fed the population for thousands of years, at risk.” - The UN special rapporteur on the right to food urges Mexico to continue ban on GMO corn

“While lower wages in China lured away many clothing, toy and TV outfits, today a manufacturing revival is evident in Mexico. Factories are humming at full tilt; some are expanding operations.” - Mexico’s Manufacturing Revival

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reflections on Talk by Annie Kammerer, NRC

Saga Prefecture governor Yasushi Furukawa looks way stressed. The Genkai nuclear plant is in his prefecture and its reactors were shut down for maintenance before the Fukushima disaster. NKH reports that he’s gotten mixed messaged from the national government on whether it’s safe to restart the plant and emotional letters from residents who have either safety or economic concerns (82% of Japanese want to get rid of nuclear power eventually). He doesn’t trust the regulatory body that says the plant’s safe because they gave a clean bill of health to Fukushima before the disaster too. He’s got grave responsibilities to the people in his community, but can’t trust what the higher-ups are telling him. What to do?

At a DC EcoWomen event that I attended last night, Senior Seismologist at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Annie Kammerer pointed out that Japan, like most countries in the world, manages risk to nuclear facilities using a “scenario model”. This model, she says, is much less comprehensive than the “probabilistic seismic hazard assessment” or PSHA model that the US uses. Japan is in the midst of adopting the American model while the NRC has released, on its part, a report on lessons learned from Fukushima (NRC itself has faced scrutiny of late).

Kammerer, a California native who was intrigued by earthquakes growing up, spoke in depth about the ways that the US determines hazard and reduces risk to nuclear facilities. It involved a lot of statistical stuff that I couldn’t quite follow and therefore was a pinch skeptical of. Numbers, after all, can’t encompass every potential scenario.

Still, the US has 104 operating nuclear reactors (not to mention nuclear waste facilities) and one’s got to come up with some sort of hazard model, as deficient as it might be. Kammerer and her colleagues unearth as many potential human screw-ups, as much available data on seismic history, the worst domino-effect scenarios and scientific data as possible and provide guidelines for constructing the best facilities under these circumstances. The goal is to push their findings into law, into the regulations. That can be a long process – 10 years in most cases (check out this infographic on risks to US nuclear facilities).

Although Kammerer says “I’m not pro or con nuclear power” and that “politics and science should be kept separate,” she “would eventually like to see nuclear phased out in the US.”


The DC EcoWomen are a fantastic group of people and had heaps of intelligent, revealing questions for Kammerer. Among them: Is fracking a concern? (yes, and NRC is looking into the implications); Obama’s canning Yucca Mnt. – what does the NRC think? (the decision had more to do with politics than science). I was eager to ask more questions – particularly her thoughts on China’s nuclear industry, the recent findings on tritium leaks at a large portion of US plants, and Diablo Canyon – but time was limited. I think I’ll leave the final word to Rankin Taxi:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Hermit Thrush

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a wonderful collection of landscape paintings. Some are huge and majestic with towering waterfalls and rocky cliffs. Others, like Thomas Wilmer Dewing's The Hermit Thrush (1890) bring out nature's subtlety. I love that the women are so absorbed in their surroundings that they physically melt right into the field they're standing in.


Of course, knowing what a Hermit Thrush actually sounds like adds a whole new dimension to the painting:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: Twelve by Twelve

Personal accounts on living off the grid, starting a small farm or generally breaking away from first world consumptive go-go lifestyles are a dime a dozen these days (see Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Farm City, The Dirty Life; Growing a Farmer; My Empire of Dirt; City Farmer; Radical Homemakers; etc. etc.). These are all great books and it’s truly heartening to see this genre blossom – I desperately want these ideas to go mainstream – but for a devoted reader one begins bumping up against the same philosophies, the same prescriptions in every book. It can get a bit repetitive.

One certainly bumps into the oft-told noble simplicity mantra in William Powers’ Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream, but I decided to crack open the book because of his unique perspective as a former aid worker. Having been steeped in debates about international development for the past five years, but also having a strong interest in domestic/local efforts in sustainable living, I’m drawn to any writer who attempts to marry these two domains. That’s because there’s something traditionally incongruous about development and sustainability. Powers puts it succinctly:
When discussing relatively “poorer” countries, we need to make a clear, explicit distinction between people living in a state of material destitution and people living healthy subsistence lifestyles. Terms like poverty and Third World mask this distinction and give license for modern professionals – of whom I’ve long been one – to undervalue, denigrate, and interfere with sustainable ways of live… roughly one-fifth of humanity has too much and is overdeveloped; another fifth has too little and is underdeveloped. Neither of these groups experiences general well-being.
Powers, then, defines developed as those in the middle, not those with so much material wealth. This is an intriguing idea.

Another element Powers mixes in is a strain of Buddhist philosophy on mindfulness and acceptance in the face of environmental and societal tragedies. I’m always waiting for that moment when a professed Buddhist outlook begins tipping the scales into cheap New Agey feel-good tripe. Powers flirts with this gray area but on the whole I found his observations to be, shall I say, consoling. I identified greatly with his attempts to break through his own despair and found his conclusions helpful. The weight of the world’s problems, the anxiety for the future, is so overwhelming that often the best one can do is live fully and gratefully in the moment.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Symbolism in Julie's Oak Park Garden


Julie's Garden
I’ve been reading a lot about the Michigan woman, Julie Bass, whose front yard vegetable garden has got her in big trouble with the Oak Park planning authorities. I wondered why this little story inspired such strong emotions in me and apparently many others who’ve been commenting on Julie’s blog (it was also the most popular post on Grist and Treehugger yesterday). It’s just a modest little garden, after all. My hunch is that the story has taken off because it represents something bigger: it symbolizes the general anxiety and frustration that people are experiencing trying to bring a better world into being.

First, the story comes from Michigan, the only state in the country that lost population in the recent census. Michigan was going through a recession long before the big one hit –the cloud of economic malaise that’s settled there seems like a part of the scenery now. Hell, it’s why I left the state six years ago. I’ve continued to apply for the scant positions that attract young, forward-thinking professionals but on the whole, the climate there seems stuck in old models of doing (perfectly illustrated by Planner Kevin Rulkowski’s inane comments). But then there are folks around the state like Julie Bass who decide break through the malaise by starting something truly community-oriented. The fact that she got slapped down for doing something so clearly in line with “the spirit of the times” makes one white-hot angry. At the same time, I’m not particularly surprised that a city in Michigan would give a backward bonehead like Rulkowski control over an office as important as planning.

Second, the attention given to lawns is an interesting one. There is perhaps nothing more symbolic of the “suburbs” than a lawn. Mess with the sacred position of the lawn, it would seem, and you mess with the very rationale for “the suburbs” as an idea. Methinks Rulkowski is fighting some subconscious fear of losing his way of life, being cast back into the gritty city or the scary wilderness. Perhaps on some level they know that most suburbs (as we typically think of them), in a post-oil world, will be dead zones. If he can wrestle the garden from Julie, he can hold onto his fantasy of the suburbs as utopia. It’s a losing battle, dude.

And here you can sign a petition telling him so.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Afternoon View: Theodore Roosevelt Island


There are some great old trees on this lush, car-free island in the middle of the Potomac. While there I saw deer, heron and Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies. You won't forgot you're in the city though: a steady roar from cars going over the TR Memorial Bridge, GW Memorial Parkway and air traffic heading to DCA fills the air along with singing cicadas.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Government's Role in the Food Supply

Civil Eats tips us to a new exhibit at the National Archives on the role of the US government in food supply and production, "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" As Civil Eats points out, the exhibit glosses over the darker aspects of industrial agriculture and the role of corporate lobbyists in shaping our diet (flavorless example from the exhibit: "The result of mechanical and biological revolutions in agriculture was increased productivity, reduced labor, greater specialization, and lower costs to consumers."). But there are some pretty interesting visual materials including this one of the USDA food guide from WWII, where amazingly "butter has its own food group".


Debates over the role of government in food become especially heated when it comes to school lunches. Jamie Oliver has been very vocal about excessive sugar and processing in these meals, and locally the blog Slow Cook took a fascinating, in-depth look at the way food was prepared last year in his daughter's elementary school:
I was perplexed by the sheer banality of so much processed, canned and sugar-injected food being fed to our children on a daily basis; disappointed that no one seemed to take issue with this sort of food service; chagrined that pizza and Pop Tarts and candied cereals were being served so routinely alongside Mountain Dew masquerading as milk–and all of it here in the nation’s capitol, right outside Michelle Obama’s door. Are these really the lessons we want our kids to learn about food?